London’s National Film Theatre, one of the most useful institutions in this city (when it does not fill its entire programme with gay and lesbian films from Outer Mongolia) is running a Lawrence Olivier season in August and September. Naturally, the four Shakesperian films are shown and “Henry V” has been given pride of place with a certain number of disclaimers by critics who, over the years, have had to acknowledge with pursed lips that, despite its heroism and emphasis on patriotism, the film is superb. Some of us might think that contrariwise, the heroism and patriotism add to the quality of the film but that is probably why we are not film critics.
Made during the war, with Olivier taking time out from his service with Fleet Air Arm, it does emphasise patriotic ideals, in particular ideals of England. As it happens, none of that was invented by the film-makers – the lines, the images, the concepts are there in Shakespeare’s play, which is what makes them so interesting.
Cinematically the film is mesmerizing, beginning and ending with a panorama shot of Elizabethan London, carefully recreated from contemporary prints. Famously, Olivier accepted and incorporated into the film the sheer theatricality of the play. We start with a raucous performance of “The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France”, during which the Chorus, played by Leslie Banks, urges us to expand the play in our imagination to take in England and France, and opens out first into the Boar’s Head Inn, where Falstaff is dying, then the two courts, the armies and the battles themselves. William Walton’s music spreads through the film.
The opened up scenes are not particularly realistic though the battle and the sight of the dead afterwards affect one with melancholy about the horrors of war, no matter what modern critics might say. But it is all artificial, with scenery, costumes, group shots based quite clearly and enchantingly on late mediaeval miniatures. The film was shot in Technicolour, another thing the programme notes see fit to apologize for (it did seem amazing to those unsophisticated audiences in the forties, honest) and the artificial look of it adds to the splendour of the film and makes it a more consistent work of art than Kenneth Branagh’s “gritty and realistic” version made forty-odd years later. Of the two, it was Olivier who served in Fleet Air Arm, having returned to Britain in 1941 from Hollywood, and there have even been stories of him having been recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to build up support for Britain in the United States while it was still a neutral country.
So what are the accusations against Olivier’s “Henry V”, apart from the lack of nit and grit, not to mention realism? In order to fit a very lengthy play into a film a good deal of text had to be dropped – a normal enough procedure even for stage productions, let alone films. Still, the programme notes tell us, some of the text was dropped for patriotic reasons, as it was wartime. The political intriguing behind Henry’s invasion of France is omitted as is the King’s bloodthirstiness.
Let’s start with the second accusation. Presumably, it refers to the enraged Henry’s order to kill the French prisoners after he finds that some of the renegade French had murdered all the baggage boys, unarmed and too young to fight. The “Henry V is a war criminal” school usually avoids discussion of the scene where a number of English soldiers and officers mourn the death of the boys and exclaim at the wickedness of it all because they would have to acknowledge that Shakespeare does not depict Henry as either particularly bloodthirsty or criminal. In fact, it is clear that the killing of the French prisoners is uncharacteristic and is ordered in response to a great wrong. In several other episodes, the taking of Harfleur, the release of the men who had spoken up against him before the battle (“Oh let us still be merciful”), the easy agreement to the French Herald’s plea after Agincourt, these all present a man who has a great heart as well as an ability to win battles against great odds.
The first accusation is simply untrue. The film may have left some of the scenes out but it is quite clear, despite the very funny “business” on the stage of the Globe, that Henry’s claim to various French dukedoms is doubtful to say the least. There is a strong hint that “now, that England’s youth is on fire” it might be a good idea to take them to fight in France rather than allow the country degenerate into a series of civil wars as had been the case under Richard II and Henry IV. And there is more than a hint of the machinations of the Church, whose bishops and archbishops effectively bribe Henry to go and fight in France, which is what he really wants to do, and not think of depriving them of some of their property.
The problem is that neither the “realistic and gritty” Kenneth Branagh nor the “Henry V was a war criminal just like George W. Bush in Iraq” school of thought, as personified by Nicholas Hytner, Director of the National Theatre, can ever get around the truth that King Harry Plantagenet, the fifth of that name in English history, is Shakespeare’s hero. In that series from Richard II to Richard III that depicts the tragic disintegration of England, Henry V is the one heroic and attractive character, whose early death is mourned throughout the long action of the three Henry VI plays.
There is, throughout the play, an image of England and of the English King that is essentially different from France. The French King is not an unattractive personality but he is weak and has been buffeted by history. The Dauphin is a fool and a braggart, a man who causes trouble through his thoughtlessness. The French nobles have no link with the people. The only truly attractive character is the Herald as he becomes more and more impressed by Henry.
England, on the other hand, is its people; the King is the King of all and the yeomen are as important if not, indeed, more important than the nobles. Although, the core of the play is England as reality and as idea, there is a kind of a proto-Union in the delightful vignette of the four captains: Gower, Fluellen, Jamy and McMorris, representing the four parts of it. They dispute, quarrel and drink together and there is an undying link between them.
In the night before the battle, the French nobles and the Dauphin sit in their own tent and alternate between dismal premonition and braggadocio. The Dauphin, spends not a minute of his time on his troops – they are there to serve him and the nobles. If anything is mourned it is the destruction of its flower at Crecy, though the lesson of that has not been learnt by anyone except the King of France. The heavy and heavily decorated armour in which the knights have themselves mounted onto their unfortunate horses symbolizes France in the same way as swiftness, lightness and, above all, ingenuity symbolize England.
In the night before the battle, Henry leaves his nobles without a single complaint from them, puts on a cloak and walks through the camp, making sure he visits every tent (“a touch of Harry in the night”). He talks to soldiers as well as captains; he listens to their complaints and to their fears; he meditates on the duties and responsibilities of kingship, in some ways echoing his own father’s thoughts on the head that wears the crown lying uneasily. Of course, he does not have his father’s bad conscience, having inherited rather than usurped his position. Nevertheless, he acknowledges his responsibility for whatever horrors might come in the morning.
There is an interesting discussion between two soldiers in which one expresses the view that if the King’s cause be wrong (the very fact that an ordinary soldier can think such a thing is astonishing) he will pay a heavy price for the battle and its outcome:
“I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing when blood is their argument?”
To which another soldier, one who is considerably more rebellious in his attitude to the King, replies:
“Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own.”
Henry hears it all and thinks his own heavy thoughts.
His prayer at dawn is interesting. He does not pray for victory but for his soldiers to lose their fears:
O God off battles! steel my soldiers' hearts;
Possess them not with fear; take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if the opposèd numbers
Pluck their hearts from them.”
When he addresses his troops he addresses them all on both occasions. They are all his friends, his brothers:
“For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile This day shall gentle his condition:”
(The film uses the alternative reading of “base” instead of “vile”.)
The battle is won by the yeomen archers and their craft as much as by the outnumbered nobles and the image of England as the land where all are one and the King is at one with all, is complete.
As a coda one sees Henry wooing the French Princess Katharine, who is obviously greatly taken by him, telling her that he is a plain speaking English soldier, who loves her but who will not produce flowery language for her sake. She must take him as he is but as he is he will be hers. This is a wonderful English theme, developed by numerous writers in subsequent centuries.
One can read too much into Shakespeare’s lines. He is, after all, the man who in “Macbeth” produced a description of a totalitarian state that has never been rivalled in force and pithiness. But there is a thread that runs through the Chronicles, a thread that clearly would have been comprehensible and acceptable to all his viewers, high and low: of an England that is a special country, where great things can and shall be done by all; where the yeomen are as proud of their identity as are the nobles; where the King is the King of all who owes his duty to his subjects as they owe theirs to him. When this breaks down as it does throughout the period of the Wars of the Roses, there is trouble and darkness.
“Henry V” was most probably written and first performed in 1599, only a decade after England had withstood and triumphed over a great danger from Spain, in the middle of yet another Irish rebellion and a time when folk memory could still recall accounts of the century long civil war that preceded the Tudors. A look across the Channel would have shown countries where civil warfare seemed almost endemic. There have been numerous interpretations of Shakespeare’s attitude to war – was he glorifying it and praising Essex’s incompetent attempt to subdue Tyrone’s rebellion (probably, if he knew which side his bread was buttered on) or undermining it by the presence of such contemptible braggarts as Pistol and cowardly thieves like Bardolph and Nym? The answer, one suspects, is both, which is a happy thought for all those critics and producers. How else could they pretend that they understand what Will said than Will did himself?